Product, Service & Design Innovation
‘WhatIF’ More Foods Were Made This Way? Meet the Company Feeding Both People and Soil

By creating supply chains around nutritionally dense, easy-to-grow but mostly overlooked ingredients that help restore soil health, WhatIF Foods envisions a more just, beneficial food system tailored to meet the needs of various regions.

What if the shift to plant-based food alternatives didn’t just reduce the well-documented polluting, resource-depleting impacts of industrial agriculture, but also helped transform the agricultural system into one that was truly regenerative?

That is what trailblazing, Singapore-based startup WhatIF Foods is aiming to lead on — through the use of novel plant ingredients to create healthy, nutritious, regenerative alternatives to processed and animal-based food products.

“At every step of our journey, [we’re] asking ourselves what a better vision of what the future of food could be,” WhatIF co-founder and CEO Christoph Langwallner told Sustainable Brands®. “We are looking at the way the industry produces food and are on a mission to change it one category at a time.”

Over the past decade, plant-based meat and dairy alternatives have seen massive amounts of investment — a trend that Boston Consulting Group recently hailed as potentially our best opportunity for slowing climate change. Their promise is simple: Reduce the well-documented, harmful impacts of industrial meat and dairy agriculture — which is responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as serious impacts on water and air quality. Shifting to more plant-based diets and providing consumers with more sustainable protein options are seen as key in achieving global sustainability goals.

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“If we’re going to stave off the worst effects of climate change, we must tackle the oversize carbon pollution footprint of meat,” Courtney Lindwall, a writer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog post. “Not only is animal agriculture resource-intensive and polluting; but clearing land that previously held forest and other vegetation means releasing stored carbon into the environment and destroying diverse ecosystems.”

Oatly, Impossible Foods, Quorn and other frontrunners in the plant-based food space mainly focus on using technology and innovation to create products that mimic meat and dairy as much as possible. But they’re doing this by focusing on a limited number of industrial ingredients — such as soy, oats, pea and mushroom protein, and sunflower oil.

With its lineup of plant-based milks and noodles, WhatIF is taking a different approach: Instead of just using technology to create the most animal-like products, the company is creating a whole new supply chain around healthy, regenerative products that taste good while also rebuilding agricultural systems and soil health — through the use of novel ingredients mostly ignored in global food systems.

“Our business model is different than other food companies in the sense that we're working from the ground up, literally, to build a fair and just value chain,” Langwallner says.

Image credit: WhatIF Foods

One of WhatIF’s main ingredients is the Bambara groundnut — a protein-rich legume, similar in taste to a peanut, grown primarily in Africa. It not only has a rich nutritional profile, but regenerative qualities — as it fixes nitrogen, can be grown in poor-quality soils, and can be a cover crop for shade-loving plants such as coffee and cacao.

WhatIF Foods is working to source Bambara groundnuts (or BamNuts) from West Africa; in Ghana, the company has started an outreach program, in partnership with the Switzerland-based Pond Foundation, to measure the impact of the crop on soil health and farming communities. In this, they are cognizant of a key tenet of successful forays into regenerative agriculture — local context.

“What works, or is applicable, in West Africa may not work in Asia,” Langwallner explains. “Every regenerative system needs to be tailored to the local needs. We will thus be flexible in our approach, and will work closely and directly with our supplying farmers and their supporting networks to develop regenerative practices that make sense for where they are.”

This, of course, is challenging. Most food companies just source from the same few wholesalers, who control most global food commodities. Creating a new supply chain is hard and often expensive; but for true systems change, it's necessary. So far, the initial results look promising — and WhatIF is hopeful in the potential for BamNuts to play a key role in improving soil health in various regions.

“There is a huge potential for farmers to grow more BamNuts and restore hundreds of thousands of hectares of lands in Africa,” he asserts.

Despite the BamNut’s potential, one ingredient can’t fix our unsustainable agricultural system on its own — another signal of the need to diversify and bring in new ingredients, methods and techniques to help us sustainably feed the world and restore global soil health.

“If I had a magic wand with the power to change the entire world, I would change the fact that instead of 12 crops, thousands of species — predominantly plants — feed humanity. But of course, one company cannot solve these issues alone. We will need thousands of companies to take similar approaches,” Langwallner says.

WhatIf Foods’ model stands out in the emerging plant-based foods sector and shows that if brands really want to make a difference, it's not enough to just be less harmful than industrial meat. It’s time to think — and act — bigger.

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